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Dec. 10, 2015, 3:28 p.m.
Business Models

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative wants to give independent journalists a home base

The cooperative is based out of a new coworking space in Research Triangle Park and will host programming, help member journalists forge connections, and potentially even offer an online catalog to promote their work.

Newsroom layoffs and consolidations have rattled North Carolina papers as deeply as they have local news outlets all across the U.S. Now a new cooperative is in the works to offer a home base (and a new sort of newsroom) for independent journalists who might otherwise be undertaking the lonely task of reporting without the resources of a newsroom behind them.

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative will be based out of a new coworking space called The Frontier in the state’s most prominent hub for innovation, Research Triangle Park. It’ll host journalism-related programming and public events, help connect independent journalists to each other and to other news organizations, and even try to leverage the expertise of the techie/entrepreneurial crowd that also uses Frontier’s space.

“As someone who is a freelancer now, and who has a lot of friends who are great journalists but can’t practice the journalism they used to because they were laid off from mainstream news, it just struck me that one of the most wonderful things about my old days at a newspaper was the newsroom,” Mary E. Miller said.

Miller was for many years a reporter at The News & Observer. After the Research Triangle Foundation spearheaded the development of The Frontier coworking space, she saw its potential to serve as a surrogate newsroom to bring together journalists, as well as people working on the business or tech side. (Miller’s husband is Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation.) The cooperative will formally open for business next spring or summer after renovations are complete, Miller said, though events hosted under the Cooperative banner will start as early as next month.

“I went to my husband and said, we have to have a newsroom, we have to have a place where we can bring independent journalists together and treat them as the business entrepreneurs they now have to be,” Miller told me. She later joined forces with a friend and another newspaper veteran Seth Effron (a former deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation), and the two are now working full-time (and unpaid) to get the Cooperative off the ground.

Independent journalists — think anyone from traditional freelance writers to developers to documentary filmmakers — will be able to sign up to join the cooperative for a “minimal, affordable fee,” and have access not only to the space but also whatever programs and events the Cooperative puts on. (In typical coworking space fashion, they’ll also have access to free coffee, good wifi, and a smattering of local food trucks.)

Hugh Stevens, longtime general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, is volunteering his time. Another longtime News & Observer reporter, Pat Stith, now retired, has agreed to help out in a mentoring capacity. Miller and Effron say they’ve also been in touch with other non-journalists in the area who might be able to advise members of the cooperative in skills on the business side, such as how to incorporate or how best to keep track of expenses.

The exact fee for joining the cooperative hasn’t yet been determined, but it likely will cost significantly less than $100 a year, Effron said — not prohibitive, but just enough so they have “skin the game.” Journalists who join aren’t paid by the Cooperative for stories they produce while working there, and if their stories are sold elsewhere the Cooperative doesn’t take a cut.

“We’re an organization. We don’t intend to be a publication. We won’t put out a daily news product. We won’t be paying journalists to produce stories,” Effron emphasized. “Our goal is to help the journalists and nonfiction storytellers do the important work that they do.”

Effron mentioned that they’ve also applied for funding to develop an “Etsy-like online catalog” where people in the cooperative can display and promote their work, and others can potentially buy that work, or commission more. The team is also working on formalizing a code of principles and ethics to govern the cooperative.

At the moment, funding for the initiative is coming from the Research Triangle Foundation. While they haven’t settled on a specific business model for the organization, Miller and Effron say money will come from a range of sources, including through some of the future events put on by the cooperative, and corporate sponsorships. Interest in and support for the cooperative has been strong, they say — and last week at an event celebrating the initiative, Marty Baron himself came to speak following a screening of the film Spotlight.

“Seth and I are very concerned about the state of journalism in North Carolina. There’ve been a lot of layoffs at major newspapers, and there’ve been even more cuts to the smaller newspapers in rural areas. What happens when people can’t access accurate information anymore?” Miller told me. “But we’ve seen so much interest from a lot of people who are freelancers, terrific editors, graphic designers, researchers, who believe in having better journalism and want to offer their time and talent.”

Photo by Jimmy Emerson, used under a creative commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2015, 3:28 p.m.
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